Sunday, December 26, 2010

You Deserve A Break Today

I'm just finished with Eric Schlosser's book about the influence of big business in the food industry, Fast Food Nation. This is one of a group of books exploring what is proving to be an unfortunate marriage between big business and America's (and, increasingly, the world's) food industry. (I've sampled a few others along these lines: I read Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals a while back, and I have Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma waiting in the wings.)

I learned of Mr. Schlosser in Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me, a chronicle of the effects of eating only McDonald's food for a month. In that film, Eric Schlosser is interviewed about what exactly makes McDonald's food so toxic, and he notes that it's less the food itself than how the basic ingredients have been altered and bastardized in pursuit of corporate profit (as an aside, he cites California's In-n-Out Burger chain as showing that the basic meal of burger and fries does not have to be the near-toxic fare the industry is nearly universally giving us).

This present book explores these themes in great detail. The rise of the fast food industry in California in the '50s and its spread across the nation and then around the world involved applying the ethics and methods of mass production to our food system. These innovations plus new methods in positioning and marketing (courtesy of Walt Disney and others) have caused an overnight revolution in how and where we eat, and a revolution in the mechanisms which underpin the food on your plate.

This thesis is not shocking to anyone of a certain age, as this change has taken place--is taking place--very rapidly and right in front of us. What is shocking is what underlies it: we all buy into the colorful marketing and plethora of choices and vibrant taste and convenience, but few of us know of the comparatively tiny number of people who are benefiting from the changes, or the corresponding huge number of us who are paying the price for the benefit of those few.

While he talks about a number of topics, Schlosser focuses on a couple things particularly: he spends a lot of time on the plight of the fast food worker and exploring how this change in our food system has impacted the world economically. And he talks about the industry which makes our meat products, the slaughterhouses particularly. The fast food outlet is noted for poor working conditions and low wages and an almost total absence of the benefits that were previously part of working life. These wages and conditions are justified because the mass-production underpinning has taken virtually all the skill out of the industry; you don't need to know anything to work in fast food. This is a situation which makes for a revolving door employment policy that neither sustains people nor prepares them to step up into a better job.

These things, plus food of low quality and poor nutritional content, are part and parcel of an industry which stresses low cost and which works on typically small margins. Corporate profits are huge because of the scale of the enterprises. These realities are kept from the public by an assault of marketing and spin. The result is a marketing-driven world where we associate a strong brand identity with the act of eating. This marketing has long been aimed at children so that habits profitable to the companies can be unbreakably instilled--like a religion--at a very young age and sustained throughout adulthood.

I am very much a product of this campaign, a fact I find unsettling.

Schlosser's other focus is the meat industry, particularly the beef industry. This corporate industrialization of food has utterly changed how we get our beef--indeed, it has changed the beef itself--from what and where the animals are fed to how they are processed and what is done with the proceeds of the slaughter. Not all of this change seems bad, but much of it is really disturbing. Partly this is because the fact of animal slaughter is at least distasteful for most of us; but even when one sets that fact aside, there is so much here that seems obviously wrong. The application of mass production principles to beef slaughter have similarly removed much of the expertise from the profession, but the consequences here can be serious and even deadly. And the wrong policies and practices have been contrived--or are not corrected--because the practices are making money. Not for those who are suffering, but for those far above them. In both slaughterhouses and fast food outlets the book is a vast chronicle of the misery of individuals at the bottom solely for the purpose of making more money for a small group of board members and stockholders at the top.

And that's the whole banana: it's all about profit. Businesses are consolidated and grown into oligarchies for the purpose of concentrating the wealth, of taking the money which used to be spread across many people and either jettisoning those folks altogether or positioning them into lower-paying jobs so that that money will move further up the chain instead. We increasingly get our food from non-professionals (at every step of the chain) so that their wages can be moved upstairs. And because your kids get a toy in their Happy Meal (a practice which California is blazing a trail in attempting to make illegal) and because we have bought into drive-thru convenience and the uniform taste of the McDonald's cheeseburger the world over, we are unwitting parties to the change.

I've had a growing skepticism about the influence of big business on contemporary culture for some time now. My skepticism is deepened by the central position of the Republican Party in the machinations of big business. The practical imperatives of the Republicans are economic in nature and are focused on a tiny segment at the top of the economic food chain. Thomas Frank, in his book The Wrecking Crew, talks about the party's skill in using religion and patriotism to rope in the political acquiescence and assistance of the unwashed masses but the party's true political goals are purely economic. We could hardly invent a better example of his thesis than the game-stopping insistence we saw two weeks ago by Republicans in the final session of the lame duck Congress that big tax cuts for the wealthy be secured before any other matters would even be considered. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser gives a hundred examples of how Republicans have accepted money from the fast food industry and those associated with it in return for crafting government policies which benefit the industry--policies which inevitably shit on the little guy. As one of a zillion examples, he cites the Reagan Administration's swift dismantling of the power and influence of the FDA and OSHA in the meatpacking and slaughter industries, putting in place instead a policy of "voluntary compliance." This effectively preempted oversight of the most dangerous jobs we have. Brilliant. George W. Bush continued a similar dismantling of government oversight--this idea that government is inherently evil is the cornerstone of the Reagan Revolution. And behind all of this is the sinister reality of the conservative dream of business unfettered and free markets over all.

His one ray of hope is that the industry does not require a wholesale remake to fix many of these problems. We may not through individual action erase KFC from the face of the earth; but it takes only a small change in folks' behavior to affect the oligarchy's bottom line, which in turn can beget swift changes where government action has failed. If people learn that their cheap hamburgers are a threat to both the folks that made them and possibly even to ourselves, McDonald's will quickly devote some of its vast resources to fixing the problem. If that's what it takes to get you back to the drive-thru window, that's what they'll do.

Schlosser writes with an easy, very readable style; there's unlikely to be a sweeter way to take our bad medicine. Recommended.


CyberKitten said...

This is in my pile o' books waiting to be read. I try to get to it next year.

I'm aiming at 8 books over the Christmas break and have finished 5 so far, so it's looking good. With so many out of the way I should be able to get to this one that much quicker. Thanks for the recommondation.

dbackdad said...

I too have this book (as well as Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma). I'll hopefully read them in the first few months of the new year. Your review certainly tells me that I have a good read ahead of me.

I brought several books on vacation and have already finished Hitch 22. You can count on me having a fairly extensive review of that when I get back. I am currently reading some fiction ... William Gibson's Zero History. Next up is probably Hawking's The Grand Design